Berlin is currently awaiting updated appraisals on portions of the Heron Park property up for sale. The wait time is beneficial, as it allows town officials time to truly weigh the integrity of each proposal and evaluate financial ramifications while envisioning the big picture.
Are the two proposals – a 78-home single-family residential community vs. a largely commercial space – the best the town can do? Maybe, but we must see this endeavor as an opportunity to maximize the town’s chance to get better.
The Town of Berlin bought the old chicken plant property eight years ago for one stated reason – to control its future. The time is now. After initial review, we opined here the commercial redevelopment proposal – contingent on the developer purchasing the property at a fair market price – was the better of the two presented proposals. We prefer commercial redevelopment over 70-plus single-family residences.
However, with some time to digest the intricacies of the proposals presented, we are reminded the town has one chance to get this right. Once the property is sold, the control is yielded. The developer will work within the framework of the plans presented to town, but significant changes could occur.
A savvy developer could attempt to rezone the property in order to raise value, which usually comes by increasing density through an up zoning, allowing more units per acre. It will take time and money with an unknown outcome through the rezoning process. Maybe it’s time for the people of Berlin to be their own planners and developers, allowing them to reap the rewards of increased land value through up zoning and a better project. The land could then be sold with a better outcome.
When considering this land’s future, we must reflect on what makes Berlin special. It’s the small town, quaint feel provided largely by the mixed-use downtown district. We would like to see something akin to the successful formula of our downtown space implemented on the park site. Old Ocean City Boulevard could serve as the artery leading to another Main Street corridor, named perhaps “The Crossings,” “The Boulevard” or “North District.” The model of our Main Street can be duplicated to a degree with one single thoroughfare (albeit wider for safety) with brick structures on both sides with a welcoming arch off the boulevard.
With ample parking to the east behind the buildings, the design layouts could include the bottom floors featuring restaurants and retail; the second floors being commercial space for businesses and offices or apartments; and the top floor being solely for residential use. This replication of our traditional Main Street would be a game changer, creating two downtowns with eventual trolley service between. There is potential here. Imagine the possibilities of a second downtown district with a variety of uses, including an attractive walkway to the park’s path area. Mixed-use development works, especially when it’s featured within a unique place and has modest density. Studies have proven this all over the country. Berlin has what everyone wants.
If the town were to buy into a mixed-use concept like this or something similar, the town could approach any interested parties with the plans and even present a permit-ready development. Grants could help offset expenses along the way. There are also consultants who specialize in this sort of redevelopment and speakers who discuss the process of creating new downtowns, or an “uptown” for Berlin. Creating a traditional, mixed-use, walkable, bike-able corridor is appealing and charming, befitting of Berlin’s current culture. Mixed uses are a perfect fit for this space. Demand – residential and commercial – will continue to run high as it is currently in downtown.
It’s understandable for town officials to be anxious to move ahead with unloading this property because of its debt service. But we need to be cautious here and not let desperation guide our decision-making abilities. Short-term patience could be rewarding if we widen our lens with a deeper scope. Density works and there will be benefits to the town’s accessible base with a new Main Street. There could be a solid Return on Investment for the municipality. The infrastructure is already there and the cost to provide services to the new district will not be a major expenditure concern for the town.
Berlin bought this property to keep it from becoming a potential pickle plant or another use unbefitting of our historic town. The concept was to control its use. We have the opportunity here to provide a new downtown (or uptown) district that leads to a potentially celebrated greenspace at the north end of the property.
It’s not too late for the town to rethink its hopes, steer the developers on a better course and to dream beyond what’s on the table today. A new vision can take hold and one of a “new” downtown corridor is what we see as a potential use worthy of a deeper dive.